Kiso Valley, best known for the Magome and Tsumago traditional villages, is another beautiful spot in the Japanese Alps. With one of the most famous hiking paths in all Japan, we set foot there on our quest for traditional Japan, away from temples and geisha sights.
Magome and Tsumago are two beautifully preserved traditional villages, connected through the Nakasendō way, one of the five major roads of the Edo period (17th-19th Century) connecting the new capital city of Edo (Tokyo) with the old capital Kyoto. The 500km road, which used to be done on foot back then, is almost gone, but visitors from all around the world gather here to walk what is considered the most impressive and best kept section of it.
Stunning forests, beautiful villages and traditions, we loved every minute we spent there and would recommend it to everyone interested in nature and history. So here’s our list on…
What you shouldn’t miss at Kiso Valley
While Magome and Tsumago served the same purposes for old-time travelers, the city has been preserved and restored in a very different way than Tsumago, with a broad stone walkway lined with trees and many traditional houses and craft shops.
Another difference is that it is on a slope, which leads to some beautiful views of the surrounding valley, and is home to several small museums that showcase the history of the town, the artists that lived there and their way of living.
I would recommend grabbing a drink or something to eat at the restaurants on top of the village and enjoy the views over the valley, or at the lower part to mix with the very interesting locals.
The walk through the Forests
Some travelers believe this is not their sort of a thing and leave the hike for more adventurous souls. Don’t get mistaken, the 8km that connect Magome to Tsumago are one of the most beautiful sights in Japan and you will enjoy the trees, the small towns you go through, the minimal temples and the waterfalls on your way.
It takes about 3 hours to go from one town to another and you can do it on either direction. I would recommend going from Magome to Tsumago, it a more steep way up on the first 2 and a half kilometers, but then is a soft way down full of beautiful sights.
Just don’t forget to ring the different bells on the road to get the bears away from your way (or rent your own bell at the tourist office.)
PS. Don’t carry your luggage, they can send it from one town to the other at your ryokan or at the tourist office. It’s cheap.
Tsumago is almost flat but also a very charming village that takes you back to the old Japan. The town was one of the first historical preservation projects in all Japan (if not the first) and it recreates the ambience with its unpaved streets and concealed cables.
It keeps many of the traditional houses, like the original inn (the Honjin) that welcomed the merchants that traveled the Nakasendo, and the secondary inn (Wakihonjin), the old notice board used to publish the decrees from the Shogun, the Buddhist temple (built during the XVI Century)…
But you’ll find it even more charming on it’s best enjoyed at night, when they lit up their lanterns and everything becomes quiet but, maybe, a drum beating.
Sleeping at a minshuku or a ryokan
While you can travel to Magome and Tsumago on a day trip, including the hiking through the forests, and you will sure find more western-style accommodation near the JR station, I would strongly recommend to sleep at a local house in either Tsumago or Magome. This way, you will be able to experience the towns atmosphere at night and do the hike fresh in the morning.
Don’t expect the typical western hospitality: breakfast and dinner are served early for many international standards and you will sure eat different foods, like our grasshoppers on the pic.
Just remember to book a few months before your trip, the both villages tend to be fully booked once or two months in advance.
Save some time for discovery
While many guest sleeping in Magome and Tsumago just go to their bedrooms after dinner, take some time to explore the village you are sleeping in. You will find many places closed for the night and no night scene, but people here are friendly and welcoming.
You might find someone setting up an exhibition about traditional arts and crafts or a local musician might invite you to listen while he rehearses some of the traditional music he’ll be playing the next day, just like it happened to us while exploring Tsumago.
And, just to add, it isn’t a bad place for star-gazing either.
Some extra info
The 8 km route between Magome and Tsumago is one of the most famous hiking trails in all Japan. While you can go from one to the other by bus, the tradition here is to follow the path through the forest and ring the bell to scare the bears and prevent attacks.
The road is mostly unpaved and can only be explored on foot (there are parking lots available at both towns) but there are some steep parts, so take it into account and take water and some snacks with you.
How to get there
By car: We found the best rent-a-car option in Matsumoto city, which is about one hour from Magome and Tsumago, but another option could be to book one in Nagoya. If you are traveling by car, don’t miss Takayama and Shirakawago.
By train: Most travelers arrive to the Kiso Valley by train with their JR Passes. Closest train stations are Nakatsugawa and Nagiso. From there, there is a regular bus that takes you to Magome and Tsumago villages.